Dana Safa Bernardino
On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Michelle Weise, author of Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet. Weise is also the Vice Chancellor of Strategy and Innovation at National University System.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, Michelle sat down with Sam and discussed figuring out what credentials are necessary, organizations upskilling their workers, and the importance of soft skills.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Weise shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: So, I guess, kicking us off Michelle, Long Life Learning, preparing for jobs that don’t even exist yet, what made you write the book?
Michelle: I wrote the book because I was sort of always a little bit confused when I would go to different conferences and listen to leaders speak about the future of education and the future of work. We would all sort of nod along to the idea that we do all have to become lifelong learners, but I wasn’t actually seeing anything change in terms of the investments we are making for that future, in terms of the systems, the infrastructure, the architecture you would need in order to return to learning over and over again, throughout that kind of longer, more turbulent work-life.
And so this was my attempt to kind of jumpstart our thinking into how critical that is, that the future of education is one and the same as the future of work, because it requires this kind of continuous looping in and out or doing both at the same time. And I think what also just sort of helps us just kind of kick into gear is to get out of that sort of recurring conversation around the robots are coming or computers are going to take our jobs or machine learning is going to have such and such impact on millions of jobs. That kind of stuff is just sort of paralyzing. But once we actually just consider the idea that our lives are getting longer, which they are, and our work lives are extending, which they are, you suddenly start to realize, ‘oh my goodness, 2, 4, 6 years of postsecondary education is really not just going to be adequate to sustain us for that longer work-life.’ And so what are we going to build now to make sure we’re prepared and we’ll be able to thrive in that future? That’s really the motivation behind the book.
Sam: And you said one of the lines was, ‘the first people to live to 150 years old are believed to be maybe in cribs somewhere,’ that’s wild.
Michelle: Yeah, it’s almost unfathomable, right? To think about someone living to be 150 years old. And whether or not you buy into that idea, our lives fans just are extending. They have been essential since 1840. We’ve been adding on months of life to our lifespan and we’re staying in the workforce far longer than we had ever anticipated. And so even if we stretch out to living a hundred or 125 or 150 years, we suddenly have to start to think, ‘does that mean my work-life has to be 60, 80 or a hundred years long?’ And just that sort of mental exercise of thinking about extending outward in that way, it really just sort of makes us understand the inefficiency and the inadequacy of the systems we have in place today.
Sam: In full transparency, I loved your book, and it’s tough to read because I have way too many highlights and every page dog-eared, but there’s one page very early on and you say, ‘adults have never had easy access to on and off ramps in and out of learning and work. Our systems are brittle, and were never designed for continuous returns to learning.’ Can you talk more about that?
Michelle: Yeah. If you think about our post-secondary educational system, it was always set up more for a younger learner, that kind of traditional 18 to 24 year old, who would pursue more of an immersive learning experience where they would often live on campus or just sort of spend most of the time studying versus working at the same time. And today we know most of our learners who are college goers today actually fit into what we bucket as a non-traditional learner, and so much so that the vast majority of college-goers fit into that kind of misnomer of a non-traditional learner, which is someone who is more mature, someone who is juggling part-time or full-time responsibilities, work responsibilities, someone who is probably a caregiver.
So with all of the life that gets in the way of the pursuit of educational advancement we’re still kind of stuck with the systems that are super rigid. And so all of these working learners are sort of forced to fit their very nonlinear realities into this very rigidly linear system. And so that’s the pain point we really need to solve for, in terms of putting action where we say meeting learners where they are, we really have to think about where are they? They’re often working. They’re often tied to certain kinds of geographical regions. They’re compelled to go to work at certain times, they need a very flexible, convenient way to access that education that will help them feel like they can skill up for the future.
Sam: There’s a conversation on worker readiness and oftentimes things get thrown around like low skill or a skill gap. And you hear again, maybe in the media or in round tables or in workforce development boards, this conversation about closing the skill gap, and it feels like the answer always comes back to certifications or credentialing with some combination of community colleges or for-profit technical schools. What, in your research and perspective, credentialing and crud and formal credentials, what is your view on them today? Are they as valuable as maybe the market or its consumers are led to believe and workers are led to believe?
Michelle: That’s a really good question. Cause I know there has been a lot of skepticism and doubt infused around the value of a traditional college degree. And it’s really important to underscore that there is absolute financial return on a college degree, but that is if you actually finish your degree program. So if you are able to complete the lifetime earnings that you are able to achieve as a college graduate, that will far outweigh the outcomes most often of folks with only a high school degree. It’s something around like a net return of at least to $900,000 over a lifetime.
So there’s no kind of disputing that particular fact. And I would never want to sort of be in the camp of encouraging people, never to pursue a degree. What we do have to consider though is for a lifelong learner who maybe already has a degree, the answer to filling a skills gap or for upskilling for the future is not always going to be another degree, right? Some of us don’t want another degree. And so the opportunity ahead, and also you mentioned that often the answers sought in credentials through different kinds of learning providers, but we also have to think about the onus on employers and organizations to help their own people understand where they are today relative to where they want to go in the future and help them understand how they begin to fill those gaps that they may have. Because all of us are going to have to upskill in some sort of way. And we need ways of identifying and sort of orienting toward that right pathway for us. And for many of us, it is not going to necessarily entail a full-blown degree program or a certificate. It might just be a few competencies that we really need in order to make progress in our lives. So that’s the piece that we really need to think about. We don’t really have a lot of these sorts of bite-sized and right-sized learning experiences available for us to just kind of tap into when we need just a little bit in order to advance.
Sam: Yeah. And also, I think it feels to maybe many folks who are trying to acquire the skills they think will help them as they pursue a job opportunity, it’s a tough world to figure out what is actually a valuable credential. I think I’ve read there are nearly a million credentials for work today that are out there. I mean, I can’t imagine how if you’re out of work, you can really evaluate and make a choice. Any suggestions to folks out there in that position that maybe are thinking about their next step in their career or a career switch? How do they know where to start?
Michelle: Yeah. It’s overwhelming to think about how do you know you’re making the right choice out of those nearly 1 million unique education credentials out there that are flooding our labor and education markets, which one’s going to actually be validated by an employer, which one is a future hiring manager going to actually say, ‘yep, I believe you have these skills.’
We don’t have a ton of great mechanisms there. So one way forward is to look at some of these learning providers that are working directly with employers to build the credentials that they know that they need in their people, so it kind of creates this sort of natural pipeline of learners that are more likely to get a job with a certain company.
So that’s one piece of it. There are also some more forward-leaning companies that are kind of digging into AI-based platforms, that function kind of like skills encompasses. where one of the challenges, as you mentioned, is it’s hard to know which skills I need to actually acquire, and will that actually move me along in my way.
We also just, as humans, don’t have a lot of visioning capabilities. It’s hard for us to imagine what our skills could be transferred into in terms of maybe pathways that we never knew were within reach. And so some of these AI platforms out there that I mentioned in the book are really exciting because as you start to fill in what you would normally put into a traditional resume or CV, and as you’re typing out some of these skills and these work experiences, the platform is actually surfacing skills to say, ‘Hey, did you know that people who were retail workers at Target had these kinds of skills, do you have these sorts of skills?’ And it makes the person think, ‘oh, I do actually know how to do some budgeting and leadership,’ or whatever the competencies may be. And some of these platforms also enable a manager at work to actually validate those skills and say, ‘yep, this person is pretty, pretty experienced in change management, but is very novice at pivot tables,’ or whatever the skill may be.
And so, there becomes a way for people to surface a much fuller profile of themselves. And as such, the AI can actually also say, ‘well, did you know that people with your set of skills can actually do these sorts of jobs?’ and for us sort of normal humans who have trouble envisioning that kind of pathway for ourselves, we start to realize, ‘oh, my gosh, I’m 80% there towards being a systems network analyst or 60% of the way there towards being a product manager or 40% of the way there towards being a human resources manager, and I could maybe work in this field.’ It gives you some way of latching onto the idea of transferable skills, what skills really do help you leverage your existing assets into a better, more promising opportunity.
Sam: Yeah, it would be a powerful use of technology to be able to provide those insights. The other thing you mentioned in the book is that over the last few decades, employers have retreated from training their people as they used to, creating a re-skilling crisis in America. I think one of the things I’ve noticed firsthand that’s been challenging at times is interacting with maybe folks that are well-intentioned, but are in learning and development and human resource roles responsible for training, re-skilling, development who are maybe under-budgeted, maybe under qualified, in all transparency. Maybe some folks are put in those roles because they’ve been around the organization the longest, not because they’re an academician or understand learning design. Shifting gears to think about what companies can do better in this moment where data shows a pullback on training that is skill development in nature. What kind of observations or recommendations do you have to corporate leaders out there to do a better job at skilling up their workers?
Michelle: Yeah. And I know you’ve had Peter Cappelli on and he’s kind of talked about this as well. Essentially, what he kind of points to is the fact that employers and organizations have never spent so much money on learning and development, and yet have no idea whether it’s actually working. So there’s actually, in many organizations, quite a bit spent on different vendors, but there’s no actual evaluation of whether these tools and resources are actually leading to improved performance or retention. So that’s one part of the equation.
The other piece of this is so much of the investments that we make in the training and development and learning and development space, often have now kind of converged into more risk mitigation, compliance training opportunities versus building new skills for the future. And this is again where it’s really important for employers to reflect on what they’re doing internally.
Are they actually making, for instance, internal mobility pathways very clear for their own people? In most cases, most organizations don’t actually show their existing workforce how they might move to the next opportunity and what is the pathway to get them there. And I think as we think about where we are today in terms of a very tight labor market, the great resignation leading to just people with less tolerance for the jobs that they used to have, we have to stop thinking about buying talent and instead building the talent that we already have access to and understanding what kind of talent goal we might be sitting on, that we could actually develop into the future. And very rarely have we actually done that as a country, we’ve really kind of moved away from that internal review and understanding what skills do my people actually have, and instead, going out and trying to seek out the person with the precise experience I’m looking for and buying that talent and recruiting and externally and bringing it in. And so that, that really needs to shift as we move into this near future that we’re looking at.
Sam: Yeah, there’s a lot of money spent on recruiters. It could probably be spent better if we spent those dollars internally in the organization.
Sam: The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is putting yourself in the shoes of the HR talent development role, and I want to even go beyond just that division because I think today, every frontline manager is a participant in the function of coaching and development and upskilling. And you can make the argument, maybe, that the frontline manager is in a better position to be a participant in this exercise of re-skilling and development than the HR role that sometimes sits kind of far away from the majority of workers. Do you have any specific recommendations to an organization that has a heavy frontline worker workforce?
One and two workers today are low-wage. You got a very large percentage of those that are in service sector roles where on-the-clock off-the-clock challenges make some companies say it’s tough to really offer training opportunities because of wage and hour rules today. Any specific recommendations if you were speaking to me as a C-level executive, thinking about how we enhance our strategy?
Michelle: That’s a great notion of thinking about the frontline managers as a way in to really understanding better the skills that the workforce has. Because when you actually talk to most C-suite leaders they don’t often have, especially leaders of much larger organizations, they have a very hazy understanding often of the true and precise skill sets that their people have.
Even as we think about job titles and names of folks, it’s still hard to understand truly what they bring to the table. And that includes some of those really important, hidden skills that are often more transferrable. And as we think about frontline workers and managers, and we think about ways to upskill, what we’re learning from the demands of the labor market is that more and more employers are signaling that the true skills that are of most value to them are some of those things that are more of those quote, unquote “human skills,” things that we’ve often associated as softer skills or non-cognitive skills or interpersonal skills. And as we think about this rapid technological advancement that we are already undergoing, the skills that are really needed for the future often revolve around things like emotional intelligence and collaboration and systems thinking, teamwork and leadership, and communication. And those are the kinds of skills that those frontline managers have some of the best views into. ‘What is this person’s ability to adapt and flex when it comes to change? What is their resilience, in times of hardship? How much emotional intelligence do they display in their interactions with workers? How do they take feedback?’ And those are the skills that are really gonna prepare folks better for those transitions because the harder skills are often easier to actually teach.
It’s a lot easier to build a technical training program. It’s a lot harder to build a social, emotional learning experience for folks because you can’t teach someone empathy in an hour-long course, it just doesn’t work that way. And so that’s a really interesting opportunity to think through frontline hiring managers as a way to source that talent gold from that particular level, in terms of thinking about pathways ahead for those folks.
Sam: Sure. Michelle. Thanks for taking some time. I have one final question for you. You mentioned the future of work a few times, and I want to ask you, given the moment, given the return to work that is happening, coming out of the last two years with COVID, what is your hope for the future of work?
Michelle: I think one small step we can make that would just really pay huge dividends for the future is if a large contingent of our employers and organizations can think about carving out time. So whether it’s 30 minutes a day, 30 minutes a week or an hour a week or two hours a week where the workforce is enabled to acquire new skills on the job or while they’re being paid versus trying to stack it on top of all the other responsibilities in their lives. I think that would just really move us forward as a country because it shows that investment in our people, and it also solves one of the principle first order constraints of all of this, which is our ability to access the time. It’s just such a valuable and precious resource that we really need to think about more deliberately for our employees.
Sam: Well, Michelle, thanks for taking time and joining us.
Michelle: Thanks so much.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Jobs, Work, Workforce, Credentials, Certification, AI, Upskilling, Training, Soft Skills
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